In 1992, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) remembered a warning by CIA Director Allen Dulles (who would become a Washington casualty of the Bay of Pigs) in 1959 that the Soviet Union’s economy was humming so efficiently that by 1970 the gap between the Soviet and U.S. economies would be dangerously narrow. But, then, the 1957 Gaither Commission projected that the Soviet gross domestic product would surpass the U.S. GDP in 1993. (The sclerotic Soviet Union did not live that long.) Moynihan noted that in 1987 the CIA reported that East Germany’s per capita GDP was higher than West Germany’s, an assessment that “any taxi driver in Berlin” could have refuted.
In the aftermath of the U.S. government’s misunderstanding of the Afghan regime’s durability and the Taliban’s capability, clearly in foreign policy as well as domestic policy the government needs a dose of epistemic humility. Epistemology is the field of philosophy concerned with the nature and limits of knowledge.
Domestically, the Biden administration speaks breezily about “transforming” the financial and energy components of the nation’s almost $23 trillion economy, oblivious about possible unintended consequences. In foreign policy, a chastened administration needs to tailor its objectives to fit its ability to know what it does not know.
In 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson called the United States “the locomotive at the head of mankind.” Europe was recuperating, Asia’s economic development had barely begun and U.S. prestige had soared because of its prodigies of war production. Forty years later, as the Berlin Wall was being chipped into souvenirs and the Soviet Union was a year from extinction, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick published an article whose title expressed her expectation and the nation’s yearning in 1990: During the Cold War, foreign policy had acquired “an unnatural importance,” but now the United States could again be “A Normal Country in a Normal Time.”
The U.S. holiday from history lasted 11 years. It ended with the thunderclap of 9/11, which shattered long-standing assumptions about technology and civilization advancing in tandem.
“The rapid increase of the means of communications throughout the globe,” said a U.S. secretary of state, “have brought into almost daily intercourse communities which hitherto have been aliens and strangers to each other, so that now no great social and moral wrong can be inflicted on any people without being felt throughout the civilized globe.” So spoke Hamilton Fish in 1873, 15 years after the first — low-quality and short-lived (it lasted three weeks) — transatlantic telegraph cable was laid.
Since then, communications have been enriched by the telephone, radio, cinema, television, satellites and the Internet. Is it, however, clear that this enrichment, which has enabled graphic journalism, has made wrongs more intensely “felt” from afar? Perhaps it has had a desensitizing effect.
The April 26, 1937, bombing of Guernica by German planes supporting the fascist side in Spain’s civil war shocked the world and provoked Picasso to produce perhaps the 20th century’s emblematic painting. The bombing killed an estimated 300. Just six years later — two years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki — Allied bombing produced the Hamburg firestorm that killed perhaps 20,000. The world was only momentarily attentive in 1995 when Bosnian Serbs massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.
Today, with the United States facing a near-peer adversary in muscle-flexing China, and with malign nonstate actors worldwide euphoric about the U.S. stumble out of Afghanistan, there will be U.S. domestic pressures for focusing on (in Barack Obama’s phrase) “nation-building here at home.” However, Robert Kagan, writing in Foreign Affairs, reminds us:
“In the 1950s, during the Eisenhower administration — often seen as a time of admirable restraint in U.S. foreign policy — the United States had almost one million troops deployed overseas, out of a total American population of 170 million. Today, in an era when the United States is said to be dangerously overextended, there are roughly 200,000 U.S. troops deployed overseas, out of a population of 330 million.”
Americans are impatient, eager to stop thinking about their enemies, who are implacable. This is a dangerous asymmetry.